Walden Media, a company best known for children’s fare like “Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” is broadening the definition of what it means to be family-friendly.
Take its next project, “Everest,” which premieres this Wednesday at the Venice Film Festival. The drama about a group of mountain climbers and their desperate struggle to stay alive atop the world’s most famous peak is a gritty survival story that feels far removed from the coming-of age portraits or fantasy adventures that defined Walden’s last decade in the film business. Yet Walden executives argue it’s very much in keeping with its core mission.
“We saw it as a compelling story for adults to take their teenage kids to see,” said Frank Smith, president and CEO of Walden Media. “‘Everest’ is PG-13 not because it has any language or sexual content or extreme violence. It’s due to the intensity of people freezing to death up on the mountain. But it has a good message that will appeal to parents with older kids.”
The themes of “Everest” may be inspirational in the vein of other films in the Walden canon, but at some level, backing the project does signal a greater flexibility on the company’s part.
“We really felt a strong desire to find films that appealed to a broader family audience,” said Naia Cucukov, VP of development and production. “We wanted to think more full family and less focused on kids.”
Walden’s involvement in the film took place after the studio underwent a major facelift in 2013 that saw it lay off roughly a dozen staffers, dial down its development operations and focus more intently on co-financing and producing films. The sweeping changes were inspired by many studios’ shift from making roughly 24 films annually down to 14 a year, as a tentpole obsession led them to make fewer, bigger bets. In that climate, the more wholesome fare that Walden produced was often having a tough time earning a greenlight.
“As a company we weren’t reacting quickly enough to the changes in the industry,” said Smith. “Everybody was passing on our projects and it nothing to do with their quality. They were just making fewer films so there was less opportunity to sell our product.”
One advantage Walden had, Smith reasoned, is that thanks to its backing from billionaire Phil Anschutz’s the Anschutz Film Group, the company is well capitalized. In an industry congenially on the prowl for fresh sources of cash, that backing had the potential to make Walden a lot of friends. The only problem was that many studios believed that the company rigidly defined the kind of films it wanted to make to fit between somewhere between pious and bathed in buttermilk. That’s a preconception Smith and his team are working to erase.
“I wondered why when Warner Bros. was looking for partners for ‘Gravity,’ they never came to us,” said Smith. “They didn’t see it as a Walden film. People view us with a narrow perspective and we need to widen it.”
So far the team has found a number of projects that, at least on paper, have the potential to connect with audiences. After “Everest,” Walden will team with DreamWorks, Disney and Kennedy/Marshall on “The BFG,” a Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic about a lovable giant. It will also partner with DreamWorks on “A Dog’s Purpose,” a heart-warming story about a lovable pooch who is reincarnated and serves a number of masters. There’s also “Happy Krampus!,” a co-production with Jim Henson Co., and “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monsters,” a children’s book adaptation, waiting on deck. After hitting the pause button, they are also once again moving aggressively into developing their own products inhouse.
In most cases, Walden will finance up to half of a film’s production cost and as much as half of its promotion and advertising spend. By next year, it hopes to be fielding four films annually. Even with its new-found willingness to broaden the parameters of the kinds of films that bear its imprimatur, there are some barriers Walden is unwilling to cross.
“We want to stay loyal and considerate of our brand and our fan base,” said Cucukov. “If we did an R-rated film, that would be testing that loyalty.”